'Interstellar' (PG-13)

Interstellar, the new genre-defying epic by director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Prestige, The Dark Knight trilogy), is such a huge, expansive movie that it fills your head until it threatens to overflow. You walk out of the theater dazzled, jazzed, overwhelmed, relieved and, for those without a degree in quantum physics, a tad confused (also a little deaf if you see it in IMAX, which you absolutely should). This is Nolan’s unabashed tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first movie he ever saw at the age of 8 and the one that made him decide to be a filmmaker (there are homages to that earlier film everywhere). Only unlike Kubrick’s work, the movie isn’t pure, cold science: It has heart and emotion and is populated by real people, so don’t be surprised if you walk out of the theater a little teary-eyed, too.

Only later, when you start thinking about it, Interstellar starts to short-circuit — much like Inception, there’s little of substance underneath that elaborate surface. Watching it, though, is a pure thrill. Nolan’s mind-bending ideas and visuals combine the power of a craftsman such as Kubrick with an entertainer such as Spielberg. There are several long setpieces in the movie, including one in which a shuttle is trying in vain to dock with a larger space station, that is so suspenseful it made me groan with delight.

You know what also made me groan but for totally different reasons? The dense scientific jargon about quantum physics and relativity and gravity and wormholes and time that will be incomprehensible to most audiences. Understanding every bit of Interstellar’s fact-based speculative science isn’t essential to enjoying the movie — this is first and foremost a gigantic joyful ride and a celebration of pure cinema — but a little less mumbo-jumbo and more clearly explained ideas (such as a planet in which every hour you spend on equals seven years on Earth) would have benefited the movie and shaved a little time from its mammoth 169 minutes. You’re never bored watching Interstellar, but there are times when you sit back waiting for a scene to end, because you have no idea what the characters are talking about, unless you’re a Harvard grad-level physicist, and even they will have to take notes.

Set in a near-future in which the world’s military forces have collapsed and giant dust storms are rendering our planet toxic, Interstellar revolves around a risky mission in which four astronauts — former Air Force pilot Matthew McConaughey and scientists Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley and David Gyasi — are asked to travel to a wormhole near Saturn. The idea is to go through and hopefully find another planet capable of sustaining human life. This is the second such mission: The first, launched 10 years earlier, resulted in messages from the astronauts claiming they had found three promising candidates.

But the voyage will keep McConaughey, a farmer, away from Earth for untold years, which breaks his daughter’s heart (she’s played as a child by Mackenzie Foy and as an adult by Jessica Chastain). She cannot forgive her dad for choosing mankind over her. He promises he’ll be back, but he doesn’t know if that’s a promise he’ll be able to keep. That’s the set-up for an unpredictable adventure filled with stunning sights and visuals (there’s a beautiful shot of Saturn, the protagonists’ spacecraft a tiny dot next to the gargantuan planet). There are traces of whimsy too, such as the two unusual robots accompanying the astronauts, perhaps the most personable robotic duo in a live-action movie since C3PO and R2D2.

Nolan wants to blow your mind, the way Kubrick did, and he achieves it several times. But his attempt at giving the story some emotional heat and humanity — the elements 2001 lacked — don’t work as well as they should. The actors aren’t at fault: There’s just too much of everything, and one critical sequence near the end, filled with wonderful effects that are new to film but also with a preordained conclusion, goes on so long I started glancing at my watch.

Nolan, who can make a cornfield look as stunning as an aurora borealis, still hasn’t gotten the knack of making his puzzle pieces fit (Memento is probably his most solid movie, although even that one is a bit iffy). But even an imperfect Nolan movie is better than most of the genre pictures that have cluttered screens this year. His creativity and daring excite and inspire you. They make you love the art of filmmaking more. This is what movies used to do instead of recycling things you’ve seen a million times before.

Also, watching a science-fiction movie that takes science seriously is refreshing (Guardians of the Galaxy was fantastic, but that was simply a terrific comic-book movie). As usual, Nolan’s frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer has come up with a score that fits the impossible dimensions of the film, and the music adds tremendously to the excitement. (Curiously, Nolan, who is obsessive about sound mixing, flubs a critical line reading by Michael Caine that imparts some critical information; you can barely understand what he’s saying, but fortunately someone repeats it in the next scene).

McConaughey’s renaissance continues: He’s required to play practically every emotional note imaginable, and he hits them all. Hathaway isn’t quite as convincing as a scientist, and she also gets the movie’s worst speech, but she’s passable and doesn’t ruin the movie. For all its flaws, Interstellar is required viewing for anyone who appreciates the majesty movies are capable of, the way they can fool us into thinking we’ve been transported into another galaxy, and for anyone who wants to see things they’ve never seen before. This isn’t Nolan’s best movie, but his ambitions and trust in the audience keep getting bigger. He’s one of Hollywood’s few true remaining visionaries, and he’s only getting warmed up.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, Michael Caine, Topher Grace, John Lithgow.

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 169 minutes. Vulgar language, apocalyptic imagery, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.